Entering Competitions: Tips from the Pros

Your friends and family think your homemade wines are the best, but are they right? The best way to find out is to enter your wine in a competition. Wine competitions can also be a good way to gain feedback on wines that you may think are flawed, but you’re not sure what went wrong. In this issue, three wine judges share their advice for avoiding common mistakes when entering competitions.

Mitch Gibson is a member of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Growing Association. He has graduated from American Wine Society’s wine judging training program, and is currently studying to become a Certified Specialist in Wine through the Society of Wine Educators. 

Some of the flaws I see most often when judging wines include trapped gas (CO2) in wine kits, although, I would add that a lack of nose (aroma/bouquet) and lack of tannic structure (reds) are areas of concern (occasionally). With wines made from grapes, fruits, vegetables and/or flowers it generally falls into two categories: oxidation and/or cork taint.

Before you enter a competition, first, read the entry requirements. You don’t want to be disqualified from the start or entered into the wrong flight. Also, before I enter a wine, I re-taste.  I find the best time to taste is first thing in the morning before you have eaten. Your taste buds will be at their peak and you will be more likely to discern whether the wine is balanced (the happy median between tartness/sweetness) and has good mouthfeel (body).

Get some good feedback on your wines ahead of time as well. Avoid friends, relatives and spouses. They are more inclined to tell you what you want to hear. If you have a local winery or wine shop nearby ask the winemaker or owner to taste your wine and ask for their constructive comments.

If you are thinking of entering your first competition, have patience.  I think we have all made the mistake of being impatient at one time or another either by entering a wine that is too young (tannic) or has a slight imperfections that could have been caught through re-tasting (i.e., trapped CO2).

Gene Spaziani has been a home winemaker for more than 40 years. He is a charter member of the Society of Wine Educators, Amenti del Vino — The Wine Society and a former president of the American Wine Society.

Before you enter your wine into any competition, make sure that the wine is complete and ready for evaluation. The wine should be properly aged and be a finished wine. Allow enough time in storage for the wine to marry and blend and reach its potential. Never enter a wine that has just been recently bottled as wine has to adjust to its environment and it takes time. Recently bottled wines usually go through a period of adapting and “bottle shock” which can cause off tastes that will disappear in time. Make sure the wine is sound and that there are no problems that you can determine.

Some of the primary mistakes many new home winemakers make when they start entering wines in competitions are that the wines were recently bottled; not properly aged; the wines are still going through secondary fermentation (not properly stabilized); poorly sealed; improper sanitation which causes defects; listening to feedback from friends who say that the wine is great when it may not be; make sure the wine is a sound one.

Many years ago I asked one of my mentors, August Sebastiani, why I didn’t get any medals in a competition I had entered when my friends told me that my wines were great. He told me something I have remembered all my life, he said, “It’s not what you think about your wines, it is what the judges think about them.” All home winemakers who want to enter wine competitions should remember what Mr. Sebastiani said. Remember that these judges do not know who you are and score your wines completely objectively.

Joe Dautlick is a graduate of the American Wine Society Judge Training Program. Joe annually organizes several amateur winemaker competitions and judges in numerous amateur and commercial competitions. He is also an instructor in the American Wine Society Judge Training Program.

There are some common flaws that I see over and over in wine competitions, and many of them are fixable – or at least can be prevented. When it comes to flawed wine, winemakers should not fool themselves — you’re not going to slip it through — judges are trained to find those flaws. However, if you know your wine is bad, but you don’t why, that’s a good reason to submit a wine because maybe someone can tell you what you did wrong — especially if the judges write some notes.

One of the very first flaws wine judges notice is cloudiness. I’ve noticed that cloudiness is decreasing with the advent of cleanup and fining techniques, although it still remains a problem.

Another major flaw is wine that is imbalanced, for example, a wine that is very dry but has very high acidity – it’s just not going to score well. Or on the opposite end of the scale, a wine that is sweet with no acid.

Overoaking is also a common mistake. Winemakers can add oak to try to hide a flaw, so when I taste overoaking I think of what I should be looking for underneath all that oak.

Bacterial faults are still pretty common, but everyone can control this. Always add enough sulfite to protect the wine and keep your equipment clean.

Before you enter your wine in a competition, the most important thing you can do is to label the bottle properly. If you used a couple other grapes besides the main grape, label it as such. Also, along with the vintage year, always include the sweetness — wines are flighted based on sweetness, and if a sweet wine gets flighted in a dry category it’s not going to do well, and vice versa. And of course, put it in the right category. Always list your wine in the group where it’s going to get the fairest attention.